Last time we kicked off our lads holiday in style with a big night out, needless to say come the end of our first day’s walk we were more than ready for bed, we dozed off safe in the knowledge that the next day we would have clearer heads, and sure enough we woke up ready and raring to see more of what this beautiful part of Tuscany had to offer.
If you missed part one, it is available here – Part 1.
Up early again, this time in a much more ready-to-rock state. Breakfast at the villa was plentiful, and we still had that left over pizza from our meal the night before. We had decided to go to Empoli on the way to our next villa, but via San Miniato; with a little research before we left I could see it was a must. We knew that this morning’s walk was going to be a long slog next to a big straight road so we set off as early as possible. The first few 1km took us past houses, roadside shops and then eventually the odd block of industrial units set into the countryside. Wedged somewhere between the train line and the river, this particular part of the trek saw us march along the main industrial route through Tuscany. After a good hour’s walk along SP2, occasionally catching glimpses of the beautiful River Arno and the surrounding countryside through buildings and farmland, we come across Ponte Alla Novetta. This is where we meet the river and SP5, our road of choice for the next 11km or so. We occasionally stopped to turn and watch the mountains we’d climbed yesterday disappear behind us. Soon enough we were in Castelfranco Di Sotto, where we cross the river for the first time to join SP6. A quick drinks stop and we were on the last stretch of our morning walk, 10km to San Miniato.Just around the next corner we see a tower on top of a hill, protruding majestically from the huge flat basin by which we were currently enveloped. At least now we had something to walk towards. We really picked up pace despite the obvious rubs and aches. I was surprised by how well my chicken legs had held out on this walk, amazing that such spindly things can hold the weight of my torso and pack so well. As SP6 ran into SS67 in Ponte a Egola we knew we must be just about ready to climb. We turn right into via catena and there it is; a very steep, very windy piece of road. We arrived at the foot of the hilltop town at about 1pm, fully exposed to the mid-day sun. We powered up the winding hill, the whole time thinking to ourselves, “it’ll be just over the next hill”. Rolling hillside olive groves strewed the landscape. It was the kind of view that would excite me into getting myself an olive tree on my return home. The pretty villas ignited dreams of one day owning something out here. This is why I love Italy.
We finally got to the top to find a huge brick arch which led into the palatial Piazza Della Repubblica. To the left another, smaller arch with steps that led to the Piazza Del Duomo. Everything here feels like something you’d find in a Disney movie. As we look up to the Tower Of Frederick, built by Frederick II in the 13th century and rebuilt in 1958 after the war, we know this is going to give us the best view of the Arno Valley. The large flat outcrop at the top of the hill that plays host to the tower had stunning 360′ views that felt like they went on forever. You could see our entire day’s walk in a snapshot. As our excitement settled we headed back down the hill and past the Duomo to a cafe, Bar Cantini, that we’d spotted earlier. Sure enough, at the back of the cosy restaurant area was a huge window and balcony with more sweeping views of the Tuscan countryside, looking down over a few small allotments. The spoken English of the staff wasn’t much help, so my efforts in Italian would have to do; we are in Italy after all! We managed to order everything just fine, and even get some information about the best route out of the city. I could feel my confidence with the language booming and after what was one of the best platters of cheese and meat I’d ever eaten, we left to the sound of the female staff crying “Ciao ragazzi, buon viaggio”. Obviously the staff were appreciative of our communicative efforts.
With advice on the best way out of the city in hand we headed for Empoli, the last stop of the day. Only 10km to go. We walked another spiraling hill path down towards the SS67 which would be our route for the rest of todays journey. We managed to make it to Empoli in good time and we spent a short while checking out the historical centre, taking in Piazza Farinata degli Uberti to see the Collegiata di Sant’Andrea, the main place of worship in Empoli. It was a huge walk today and we had all decided before we left the UK that we would get a taxi from Empoli to our next villa, Agriturismo Tenuta Cantagallo. After a 15 minute cab ride we arrived at a beautiful villa with pool, overlooking a beautiful hillside olive grove and vineyard with views of Capraia and Montelupo Fiorentino. We were greeted with a very warm welcome, the villa was clean and tidy with decent enough facilities but when we sat on the balcony area overlooking the pool, I don’t think any of us would have minded if we were stopping in a tent.
Once the next overwhelming view of the trip had sunk in, it dawned on us we were in the middle of the countryside with cooking facilities and no food. We were so tired we’d not considered that we may need to eat. At this point we had to accept that we were going to have to take the 3km trek into nearby Montelupo Fiorentino, which had a few restaurants and a Coop supermarket. At least we didn’t need to take our packs. We actually quite enjoyed the walk, pack free and downhill. We saw a nice looking seafood restaurant called Osteria Livornese and asked what time they open. “Alle otto”, the man sitting outside said, slightly confused by the sight of four dishevelled English boys in boots and shorts. So it was decided, seafood at 8, and we headed to the supermarket to grab ourselves some supplies for the morning. When we got back to the restaurant at 8, a slightly worried looking waitress sat us in a corner and claimed to not speak any English. I went completely brave and ordered the Tuscan fish stew, Toby ordered something, I’m not sure he knew what it was, he’d been given an array of shellfish, including shrimp, with no idea how to get into them, and no way of asking. Luckily between us we figured it out and the meal was not lost. My Tuscan stew arrived, along with Matt’s and we were presented with bibs, “Is this just because we’re English” I asked in Italian and the young woman laughed, “no it’s just messy” she replied. I felt like this was the icebreaker for us, all of the staff were much warmer once they could see we were making an effort. The stew was unbelievable, if you’d have told me 3 years ago that I’d be sat in a restaurant in Tuscany chowing down on big thick squid tentacles, I’d have thought you mad. This really was the best fish dish I had eaten. If you are ever in this part of Italy, this restaurant is worth a trip out for. We were blown away, but maybe if you do visit, go for smart casual dress, as opposed to our smelly hiking lads holiday attire. After paying our bill and being brought an entire bottle of limoncello to drink between the 4 of us, we headed to our beds. It had been a long couple of days and there was still another left.
As the sun rose over the valley on what was to be our last day of walking, we prepared the breakfast we had bought the previous evening and headed into Montelupo to re-stock on water and supplies. We grabbed a coffee in Cioccolato 23, a lovely little chocolate shop, bought all of the chilled water they had, picked up a couple of cans of San Pellegrino, my favourite soft drink, and headed for Lastra A Signa, it looked like a pretty town and was about half way to Florence. We found our way to SP73, up and over a large hill towards the small town of Malmantile. We were really glad we chose this road; the other route we could have taken seemed to be mostly major roads. This way was probably more challenging thanks to the rather large hill, however, it made for excellent views of the surrounding hillsides. Yet more olive groves rolled down the hills on either side, with the impressively straight vineyards creating an almost mathematical pattern.
We had been walking for just over an hour when we turned left down Via Scoriatoia which quickly went from a road, to a farm track, to a footpath. After passing farm buildings and small holdings on this quiet and pretty path, we hit SP72 straight to Lastra A Signa. Another 4km down the fairly busy road and we had made our half way point for the day just before lunch. We walked through the fantastic archway in a medieval stone tower towards Piazza Garibaldi where we stopped for coffee and some lunch in the lovely local Caffe Letterario Voltapagina. We were all starting to feel the walk now. Blisters were forming, legs aching, but we were so close. This was the final stretch, we got ourselves motivated and went for it. Here goes the last 12km.
The last part of our journey was to be our hardest. As our sat nav was trying to take us along some very main roads we used Maps Me once again to find a more walker friendly route. We headed out of Lastra a Signa past the Scuola Primeria S Maria a Castagnolo down Via a Gramisci. I particularly loved the country lanes with the warm sun beating down on us, perhaps this is how wonderful a walk in Devon could be if it didn’t rain 350 days of the year. We followed our route through the underpass of a main road and turned right onto a foot path that ran parallel to the side of a dried up canal along the edge of the city suburbs. The juxtaposition of the warehouses, lorry depots and factories on our left and the dry canal and countryside on our right was quite something. Pulling our gaze upwards from the golden sun-dried grass of the hillside was the Scuola Superiore della Magistratura which is housed within the walls of Villa Castel Pulci. Its light rectangular facade with a raised middle section is topped with ornamental spikes and can been seen across a huge section of the Arno valley. The foot path ended and met Via di Casellina. It was all paved city roads from here. We followed the route until in the distance we saw it, the border sign for Firenze. The golden selfie we had walked so far to get was mere metres away. We revelled in the moment, we had made it.
Unfortunately we were still some distance from Villa Il Mosaico, which was to be our final resting place on this trip. By this point we were close to broken, but we rallied at the last and powered down the streets which became gradually more built up and overlooked, occasionally breaking into a light jog we stormed the last few km until we collapsed with an epic sense of joy and achievement at the door of our villa. As I stepped inside we were met with a smile, “you must be the boys that walked here from Pisa” said our rather amused hostess, her colleague looked up from his desk shocked “are you mad”, we must be I replied with a smile beaming across my face. We were shown around our cosy little villa. It was modern and tidy, its cold tiled floor and stone walls were a welcome respite for our tired feet.
We gathered ourselves, showered, changed into pumps and trainers and figured out what public transport we would need to get to the centre of the city. We were filled with a childish glee; we had all seen the pictures and were excited to embrace the chaotic crowds that would undoubtedly surround the Duomo. Only slightly rested we gathered ourselves and took comfort in the fact that our nearest tram stop was only a few minutes’ walk from our villa. We boarded the tram and as we approached the Piazza Del Duomo we could hear the murmur of a growing crowd alongside the glimpses of the huge terracotta roof of the Duomo poking through gaps in the tall buildings. We stepped into a busy square where we got the full view of the Duomo, with its white, green and pink marble facade glistening in the slowly lowering sun, it was truly a spectacle to behold.
Filled with emotion we circled the incredible Gothic structure topped with the largest brick dome ever constructed. Hobbling around the place like four one hundred year old men, we peeled ourselves away and went in search of the river, and more importantly the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge lined with shops, originally butchers but after the Vassari corridor was built-in 1565 to give the Grand Duke safe passage from his residence to the government palace, the butchers were evicted and slowly replaced by goldsmiths and jewellers. The block-like make-up of the exterior of the bridge looks like Lego from a distance, painted in various shades of yellow and off white. The buildings on the bridge are tied oddly into the buildings at one end, with only a small raised corridor, the Vassari Corridor, connecting it at the other. Looking straight up the middle of the bridge, you are almost blinded by the glistening windows lined almost exclusively with gold and diamonds; it’s clear that the once working class butchers row of this bridge have long since been erased. We crossed the bridge and headed for Forte Di Belvadere, from here you get a panoramic of the entire city. We sat on a wall at the top overlooking the city, the sun was setting and we turned to each other, agreeing in unison, no more hills!
With our mission well and truly accomplished we rolled back down the hill towards the city centre in search of a famous Florentine steak. The last supper on our trip was going to be a good one. Keeping our eyes peeled, we stumbled past Osteria del Proconsolo and liked what we saw. We ordered one huge steak between us, with a few sides, it came out sizzling and succulent, the flavours were to die for. Once we’d finished we were brought a bottle of limocello to share. Supping on the sharp lemon sherbert-like liquer, surrounded by the warm rhythmic chatter of local people engrossed in every day conversation, we sat in silence for a few minutes to enjoy where we were. We knew that tomorrow we’d be heading home. As lads holidays go, this truly was a different one. We returned to our villa and dosed off to the slightly disturbing soundtrack of the couple next door’s romantic weekend away.
Day 6. The last morning.
We awoke to the same beat of the creaking bed next door, unable to tell whether they had even stopped for sleep. We got up and out nice and quickly in order to see the Duomo one more time and to visit the Pallazo Vecchio. Another short walk to jump on the tram for the last time, packed and ready for home, we passed the Duomo and stopped at a chocolate shop we’d seen the night before, after all, what kind of lads holiday would it be if we didn’t return with gifts for our other halves. Venchi houses an impressive molten chocolate wall, the stream of chocolate created a continuous waterfall over the wall. Having chosen our gifts we made for the Pallazo Vecchio. I really liked the mix of the old and new statues on the square, the fountain of Neptune, with bronze figures at the base and marble horses emerging from a bronze river, stands proud at the front of the palace. The palace itself is much like what we would consider a typical castle, a large stone building with small arch windows topped with turrets, a slender clock tower protrudes out of the roof at one end.
With time drawing to a close we had to accept that our epic journey had come to an end. We headed back to the train station and did our journey in reverse, this time in under an hour by train. It was nice to zoom past some of the places we had walked. We had achieved what we came here to do, walk from Pisa to Florence, just because we could. We’d experienced some of Italy that we would have never seen by car or train, and of course, managed to get together a few guys that have totally different lives, but ten years after leaving school, still just love hanging out. What a journey! To my friends; Darren, Toby and Matt, thanks lads.